Dothead, by Amit Majmudar

Dothead

What It’s About

Everything. Race, family and identity, language, the loss of a friend, the flight of a drone, the motion of a spinning top. The only thing all these poems have in common is that they’re all brilliant.

Why I Think You’d Like It

 

If you’re the kind of person who sometimes struggles with poetry, but wants to like it, this is a perfect book for you. Even as he uses all the devices that make poetry, well, poetic, he is careful not to let the reader lose the point. He never mistakes incomprehensibility for brilliance. He is also fun. Even when dwelling on a difficult topic, there will be lines that startle you into smiling at their witty incongruities. If he references older work or academic esoterica, it will either be because that’s what the poem is about, or he will be careful to give enough context for the reader who is less familiar. He will never use them in a way that distances you from a topic you should be able to relate to. I wish I had found him earlier; he would have helped me get from my “wanting to like poetry” stage to my “actually liking poetry” stage much faster.

At the same time, well established literary nerds will be delighted by his wordsmithing. He uses nearly every structure and device under the sun with equal brilliance, and he’s clearly one of us. Whether the goal is beauty or tragedy or irony or humor, he can put his goddamn words together.

The balance between entertaining and thought provoking is splendid, and the craftsmanship is awe inspiring. This went straight to the top of my must-buy list.

Content Warnings

Some of the poems are about violence, racism or bullying. One, Abecedarian, talks about (among other things) a teenager pressuring his girlfriend into having oral sex.

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Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Do, For a Change

This episode comes shortly after A Touch of Healing but before Letting Go. For those who haven’t read those reviews, Zachary is a kid who became paralyzed and lost his father in a car accident. When introduced, he is angry and defensive but over the series he learns to deal with his pain and let his guard down. At the end of A Touch of Healing, Jack Allen (friend of Whit who briefly fills in for him) converts both Zachary and his mother Eileen to Christianity. This is their first episode after that conversion.

It opens with Zachary and Eileen arguing. We don’t get the cause of it, only the tail end, when things have already spiraled beyond whatever began the fight, when they are just reflexively flinging familiar rebuttals at each other. It ends with exhaustion, rather than resolution, and Eileen says, “I don’t get it Zach, we are Christians now, both of us. Things are supposed to be different.”

The idea that Christians are supposed to be inherently better has underwritten a lot of my issues with the other episodes in this theme, and this show as a whole. When they focused only on the (valid) negatives of secular pop psychology, but did not apply the same scrutiny to Whit’s brand of lesson teaching, well, acknowledging this “Christians are better people” bias explains a lot of that discrepancy.

For what it’s worth, though, I grew up reading cringeworthy books where literally every Christian had only minor flaws, every non-Christian was horrible, and religious conversion created an instant transformation from shitty to nigh perfect. AIO does not do that. While secular and non-Christian characters tend to fall lower on the hierarchy of Rightness, they can still have endearing or sympathetic character traits, and Christian characters still have significant flaws that they need to work on. Their stance is not that Christians are perfect, but that conversion to Christianity is essential to beginning the process of self-improvement.

And, for the record, I think that many people use their faith as a framework to help themselves grow, and that’s fine. I don’t take issue with self-improvement in a religious context. It’s just that, if you really think Christianity is the only means to grow and mature, I can only assume you have not met many non-Christians. It’s a bias that does not survive more than a cursory encounter with large numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, atheists, agnostics, wiccans, Jains, neopagans, people from a denomination you were told wasn’t “real Christianity,” Baha’i….

Anyway, in the next scene, Zachary is in a fight with his friend Erica. He’s mansplaining the toy train to her, and in the ensuing fight, it kinda breaks. Erica storms away, and Jack comes to find out what caused all the commotion. Zachary confides that he has been fighting with everyone lately. He says the whole point of being a Christian is that you become a better person. So why is he still picking fights with people, losing his temper, and being a general brat?

Jack says that self improvement takes time. He advises Zachary to pray and meditate on Scripture, and also invites him to join a Bible Study specifically geared towards new Christians. At that very moment, Connie is also recruiting for the Bible study. Eugene has recently converted, and his experience is very different from Zachary’s. Connie has given him a book to read that was extremely formative to her faith, but Eugene actually found it somewhat boring and elementary. As a curious, academically inclined person who has worked at Whit’s End for years, he is already well versed in the various doctrinal issues. He attempts to say this tactfully, but being Eugene, he doesn’t quite avoid coming off arrogant.

Connie feels mildly miffed, but she understands that Eugene isn’t trying to be hurtful and condescending. She invites him to Jack’s Bible Study, and he gladly accepts.

At the school library, before the first Bible Study meeting, Zachary tries to check out a book, but Erica is volunteering at checkout. She deliberately makes the checkout drag on, clearly messing with him in revenge for the other day. Zachary blows his temper, but does apologize, and Erica is frankly a bitch. She even picks on him for getting a book on being a new Christian, digging at him for how many times he will probably need to renew it.

Damn, Erica, way to not practice what you preach.

The study is just Zachary, Eileen and Eugene, plus Connie and Jack, which is kind of weird. The writers could easily have inserted minor one-off characters to round it out. It makes it feel like Jack didn’t actually have a full Bible Study lined up, and just threw one together when he realized Zachary and Eileen needed some extra support. Actually, that’s exactly the kind of thing Jack would do… headcanon accepted. Anyway, Zachary tells the group about the library incident, as an example of how he keeps losing his temper. Everyone is encouraging, pointing out that he apologized, which is not something he would have done before. He is also aware of his flaws, which Jack says is the first step to getting better. Zachary can’t grow without being aware of what he needs to work on.

Now it’s Eugene’s turn. Having spent so much time around Christians and Christianity, Eugene knows exactly what Bible Study is really for; humblebrags! He lists his rigorous schedule for daily meditation and Bible reading, and rejoices that he has had no trouble sticking to these rituals of daily spiritual stimulation. Again, he doesn’t mean to come across as an asshole, rubbing Zach’s face in the difference in their religious experiences. It’s just that when you’re as great as Eugene, you can’t help but come across as showing off.

Jack and Connie don’t really have a response to this, so they suggest breaking for snack. Eugene won’t be partaking, as he is fasting to better understand the plight of the underprivileged. But he is happy to say grace for everyone else.

His idea of a blessing… let’s just say it contains the word “eschatological,” a word which never belongs in a pre-meal prayer. First of all, it means “related to the theology of the end times,” and if that appropriate to a meal than somebody has definitely overused the hot sauce. Second, most people don’t know what that word means, and so they will spend the entire meal trying not to wonder why he felt the need to bring up the study of poo.

Zach’s next test of patience comes on a school field trip, where he ends up paired with Glenn. I don’t think I’ve talked about Glenn before. Glenn has two passions in life; learning about every horrific natural disaster, conspiracy theory and apocalyptic scenario possible, and using that knowledge to inform everyone in sight of the various gory ways in which they might die. He is less concerned with whether or not anybody around him wants to hear about their imminent mortality.

Like all tragic heroes, he sees all dangers but the one right in front of him, the one most likely to get him in the end; the fact that he’s so fucking annoying that sooner or later somebody’s gonna chuck him out a window.

Speaking of which, after an hour or so of hearing about giant slugs, secretly blind bus drivers, and hidden fault lines, Zach shoves Glenn into a model volcano. Listen, I know this episode is supposed to be about Zach’s lack of patience, but I for one feel this is a well-deserved outcome.

Zachary decides that, after this turn of events, he can’t be a Christian, and he heads to Whit’s End to return the Bible Jack gave him.

Before Zachary arrives, Jack walks in on Eugene explaining the difference between wisdom and knowledge to a kid at Whit’s End. When the kid leaves, Eugene laughs at a “trite little exercise” she was doing, where she looks through verses on knowledge and wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Jack reveals that he is the origin of that trite little exercise. He didn’t just want to give the kid answers, but teach her how to find the answers for herself. God, I just, I have to talk about Jack for a bit, because he is so great. He has so much faith in people’s abilities to grow and improve, and everything he does is geared towards empowering that. He is simply wonderful. I wish he could have replaced Whit forever.

Before Jack make another point, Zachary shows up with the Bible. He tells Jack he gives up. Jack’s response is, “What’s the use of taking a bath? I’m just going to get dirty again.” Everybody sins, he says. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody stumbles. And if everybody gave up on faith after a stumble, there would be no Christians left. He admits that he messes up. Zachary doesn’t believe him, but Jack tells him stories about all the trouble he got into, and how long it took to improve.

This revelation that Jack, his ultimate mentor, used to be as bad as he was, has a powerful effect on Zachary. He takes back his Bible and promises to keep trying.

Eugene starts reflecting on how hard it is to relate to Zachary’s struggle, and Jack decides it’s about time to give him a talk about humility. Eugene literally cannot name a single thing that he thinks he needs to work on. And that’s the problem. He is so absorbed in how well he is doing, he can’t recognize that he’s driving everyone bonkers. Jack, ever the diplomat, gently points out that Eugene’s next project is to develop the humility to let go of the academia and exercises, and really grow as a person.

At the next Bible study, instead of talking about his screw ups, Zachary talks about the things he has been doing to consciously practice patience. He gets into long lines instead of short ones. He asked Glenn to help him on a school project. He even ate an entire plate of peas with a knife.

Eugene planned to deliver a multi-page lecture on some obscure theological issue, featuring heavy references to the philosophy of medieval scholars. But, given what he and Jack talked about, he decides to instead share about his reflections on humility.

With a multi-page lecture. Complete with references to medieval theological philosophy.

Connie comments to Zachary that he is going to have a new test of patience. Zachary says he doesn’t think he’s ready.

Yeah, I fuckin’ loved this episode.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Jack’s speech to Zachary about committing to personal growth and getting second chances. It was the kind of thing everyone needs to hear in their life.

Worst Part: I still think the Bible study should have had a few more characters. That’s my only criticism, and I fully admit that it’s a nitpick.

Story Rating: Good, character driven, funny parts that were actually funny. A

Moral Rating: I wish they hadn’t conflated being Christian with being a decent person, but I liked everything else. B+

Final Ratings For The X Topic

Best Episode: Do, For a Change

Worst Episode: The Pushover

Good Things They Said: Growth takes long term effort and real work. Pop psychology needs to be taken with some real skeptical thought. It’s good to remember to reward good behavior, but more important to learn that actual morality does not require the promise of imminent reward.

Bad Things They Said: Growth is something only Christians get to do. Good advice from secular sources is Not a Thing. Manipulative lessons from authority figures are fine, so long as the authority figure is Whit.

Things They Failed to Address: That Whit seriously needs to learn the difference between “please introduce my kid to some nicer kids his age” and “please send my kid into the woods with a self-absorbed bully. Preferably when it’s close to dark and without any adult supervision.”

Overall Rating: Obviously their religious bigotry is a problem, and I don’t think I’m being unfair in using that word. In their eyes, any non-Christian faith is inherently inferior. In reviewing these episodes, I kept feeling like they had a lot of good ideas, but their focus kept being skewed by that bigotry. They kept having to remind the audience and themselves that all the good advice they have only counts if it is coming from a Christian perspective, and they tripped over themselves a bit.

Despite that, I’m still inclined to give this a rating on the positive side. When I’m torn, the deciding factor is often how I personally was impacted. I think that, regardless of their assumptions about where morality comes from, the message that I should keep seeking to be a better person, and not give up when it was hard, had a great influence on me. This feels like a B to me.

You Can Fly, by Carole Boston Weatherford

You Can Fly

What It’s About

A history of the Tuskeegee Airmen, in free verse.

Why I Think You’d Like It

 

It is a beautiful celebration of the struggle and victory of African American pilots in WWII, illustrated with woodcuts made by the author’s son. There is a fictionalized POV character but the events and social realities are meticulously researched. Despite the pain and unfairness, this is ultimately a story of triumph and pride. It’s a celebration of the hard work, and the people of color who battled white supremacy, both at home and abroad.

Content Warnings

References to Jim Crow, racist bullying and lynchings, but nothing graphic

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The Pushover

One of my favorite shows is Arrested Development. It is, in brief, a comedy about a family of wealthy real estate tycoons who suddenly lose their good standing and fortune, and consistently fail to get it back because wacky hijinks. It also has more running gags in one episode than most comedies fit in five seasons.

One of these running gags is J. Walter Weatherman, a former employee with a prosthetic limb. Back when the main characters were all children, their father liked to teach lessons by rigging elaborate scenarios where the kids’ mistakes lead to a horrible “accident,” and J. Walter Weatherman pretends to lose his arm. Again.

J Walter Weatherman

These lessons are simultaneously effective and useless. The text of the lesson is absorbed. But one dramatic moment does not make for good character growth. It doesn’t teach underlying moral principles or good habits. It just scares them out of one specific bad habit. They don’t learn to be considerate, just assholes who leave notes.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I’m on the third of four episodes that summarize Adventures in Odyssey’s approach to self-improvement. The first two that I reviewed brought up some valid criticisms of mainstream methods to teach kids lessons. They have a decent grasp on certain things that don’t work, or don’t work as well as we sometimes wish they do. But now I’m going to talk about their favorite method to show a kid actually learning a lesson – Whit notices a character flaw and rigs a scenario where they see that the thing they are doing is Bad.

The episode opens with Cody, a new kid in Odyssey. To help him fit in, some kids are making him a super special sandwich for lunch. Ingredients already assembled include salami, mayonnaise, peanut butter and green beans. With donations from the large assembled crowd, they polish it off with banana peel, broccoli, liverwurst, and pickled pig’s feet.

Yeah, by “help fit in” they mean, “gang up on and pressure into doing embarrassing things.” And the sad thing is, he does it. With the group cheering him up, he takes a big bite out of the sandwich.

Well, they were clearly going for a mixture of “aww, poor kid” and “ew ew ew!”, so, mission accomplished.

Next, we meet Jared, who won’t let his friend Sarah play in the Bible Room, because “she’s doing it wrong.” Not sure how you play wrong, but apparently she was. They argue back and forth, until Whit separates them, and gives Jared a pretty solid lecture about how people need to make mistakes in order to explore and grow. Jared says he gets it, but he’s clearly just trying to get out of the conversation, as it takes about two and a half seconds for him to criticize another kid for carrying books wrong. Seriously.

Cody’s father comes by to pick him up. Cody is hanging out alone, looking at Bible maps. Cody’s father is worried that Cody doesn’t have friends and is willing to do anything for attention. He tells Whit the sandwich story, and about some other incidents. Cody’s character is fleshed out; he is generally a follower, not a leader, but he has never been this bad. He used to be able to use a modicum of common sense, instead of just going along with anything and anyone. Cody’s father asks Whit to keep an eye on him, and maybe help him make some better friends. Whit promises to do what he can.

So far, it’s a dang good episode. It’s funny, the characters are interesting, and Cody’s Dad has some great insights into what may be going on with Cody, and what might help him.

We get another scene of Cody being taken advantage of. The same kid who made him the sandwich has invited him to join a club, but part of the initiation is giving the founding members toys. Suuure, not suspicious at all, that. Cody delivers a remote controlled car and a baseball bat, and is rewarded with a time and an address. Which actually does lead him to a club meeting. It’s just that the club is a bunch of old ladies doing aerobics.

Worse, they decide he’s so cute, they start badgering him to join them, and because he can’t say no… Well, at least it’s healthier than a banana peel sandwich.

When Cody goes to Whit’s End that afternoon, every muscle in his body is burning. He walks in on Whit trying once again to talk to Jared about his bossiness. Seeing the bossiest kid in Odyssey next to the biggest pushover in Odyssey gives Whit an idea.

The next day, Cody and Jared meet at Whit’s End, and he gives them a job. He has some soda bottles for them to deliver to Tom Riley, and he will pay them for their help. Now, naturally Whit can get the bottles to Tom Riley any time. The real point is the map. Cody loves maps, and Jared has a notoriously bad sense of direction. So this task will force them to switch roles; Cody has to lead, and Jared has to follow.

Yeah, this doesn’t go well. Jared insists on taking the lead, and Cody caves quickly. They  take the wrong path out of the town and hit a dead end, but Jared insists on pressing forward through the brush. He runs into a barbed wire fence and scratches himself, but, determined to not be wrong, he decides the fence is a good sign. It must mark the beginning of Tom Riley’s farm. Cody makes some effort to stand up for himself, but Jared becomes all the more determined to prove himself right.

They wander on. It gets dark, and they start hearing things. Then a mysterious animal emerges and starts following them. They panic and run, and Jared trips in the dark and sprains his ankle, leaving them both helpless as the animal bears down on them.

It’s a sheep, which makes them both feel rather sheepish. It also makes Cody realize that they are not on Tom’s farm at all. Tom has apples and horses, not sheep. Cody carries Jared back to the edge of the farm, following the map. The fight has all gone out of Jared.

Whit finds them. He was expecting them to reach Tom long ago, and eventually realized Cody and Jared were in trouble. So he came out looking for them. As they are explaining the story he looks over the pair of them, and points out how Cody stood up for himself, and he is fine. An explicit parallel is drawn between him, the good kid who took the lead and was unhurt, and Jared, the bad kid who scratched his hand and sprained his ankle. This is supposed to be Cody’s big epiphany moment.

(EXPAND BELOW)

There are two things that really bug me here. First, Whit acts like Cody’s relative health is a natural consequence of his good decisions. It’s not. Cody could easily have cut himself on the fence or been the one who tripped. Or he could have easily gotten lost or hurt on his way back in the dark, after he made the right decision. The story contrived the outcome it wanted, and that’s shitty writing.

Second, Whit tries to act like he simultaneously expected that they would follow directions, and that this is how he knew it would turn out all along. Bull. Shit. Whit knew damn well Jared wouldn’t like listening to Cody give him directions, and he knew that Cody probably wouldn’t stand up for himself. He knew he was sending them into a pretty isolated area where they could easily get lost if they went off the map. What he didn’t know was that Cody would end unharmed. And for the record, I think he’s especially a dick for being fine with Jared being hurt. Jared is an ass, but he’s still a kid, and Whit is responsible for his safety.

Third is that, as I explained in the J. Walter Weatherman bit, epiphany moments don’t work in real life, especially when they are forced and manipulated. Sometimes they can lead to a renewed resolution to change, but real character growth takes time and practice.

But the episode actually seems to acknowledge this, as the final scene shows Cody’s Dad taking him to get his things back from the boy who took advantage of him. Cody’s Dad is in the car right outside for moral support, and Cody nearly throws up from the anxiety, but he gets his car and his bat back. His Dad says that, while he’s got a ways to go, he is making a good start.

What’s maddening about this episode is how easily it could have been great. When Cody’s Dad asks Whit for help, he specifically asks for Whit to help Cody make friends. There are definitely some recurring characters who could be convinced to hang out with Cody and not force-feed him gross sandwiches. I also think the basic concept of giving Cody responsibility and leadership opportunities is good. With friends and a few confidence boosts, Cody would probably go back to his old self; easygoing and cooperative, but without the desperation that makes him vulnerable to manipulation. But no, that was just too mundane and sensible. We’ve got to set up this whole underhanded Jeeves-and-Wooster routine.

Whit is not so different from the father from Arrested Development. Even when given all the tools to understand why a kid acts the way they do, he feels the need to resort to manipulation. I’ve already reviewed three other episodes where Whit uses deception and elaborate staging to contrive an epiphany moment. Every one has the same flaw; real humans don’t fucking work that way.

The next episode will come from AIO’s Whit-free era, and show a bit of a different take.

Final Ratings

Best Part: I liked Cody’s Dad a lot. He was involved but not intrusive, and willing to give support while also encouraging his kid to grow. He throws in enough snark to sound like a real person, but not so much as to sound unkind. I don’t blame him for giving the OK to Whit’s plan; we don’t know how Whit framed it. “I’d like to give your son and one of his friends an errand to run for me. I think it will help with his confidence,” sounds quite different from, “I’d like to send your weak-willed son into the woods unsupervised with a kid who is bossy to the point of borderline bullying, and this second kid also has terrible judgment. They will probably get lost, and I have no contingency plan for when that inevitably happens.”

Worst Part: Whit’s entire plan! Good god, this is not okay.

Story Rating: ….Ugh, I’m not sure. There are more good scenes than bad ones, but the payoff they lead up to is Whit’s plan and speech. It’s like eating a cake that is just coated in high quality, beautifully piped buttercream icing with fondant sculptures and caramel shards, but when you get to the cake itself, it is dry and utterly flavorless (why yes, I have been watching way too much Great British Bake Off. How did you guess?). You can heap well deserved, honest compliments on the good stuff, but in the end, the thing you were actually working up to is a disappointment. For that reason, I’m gonna have to give it a D.

Moral Rating: The explicit moral is that you should stand up for yourself when you know you’re in the right. I’m totally behind that. And there’s also some good illustration of how to actually grow and stand up for yourself, as well as the difference between being deceived and being gullible. In both cases, someone else is ultimately in the wrong, but it’s still worth being aware when you are choosing to override your own common sense.

But mixed in with all that good is the implicit assumption that it’s fine for adults to manipulate kids into learning lessons, and it’s fine to mildly endanger them, even if there was clearly a less awful approach available. I don’t think that ruined the message as much as it did the story, but I’m still going to dock points for it, because it’s a big problem. C-

Moments Without Proper Names, by Gordon Parks

Moments Without Proper Names [SIGNED] by Parks, Gordon

What It’s About

A history of hope and resistance in the face of anti-Black violence, poverty and injustice, told through photographs and short poems.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Everyone knows a picture speaks a thousand words. I think a poetry is what we call it when a dozen words have the power of ten thousand. Juxtapose the two, and you get an experience that I, with my measly prose, could not hope to capture. Twenty minutes flipping through these pages feels like a lifetime. The outside world completely disappears, as your heart is broken and remade over and over again.

Sidenote; this is the same Gordon Parks who produced and directed Shaft. He was also a musician, civil rights activist, painter, photojournalist for Life magazine, co-founder of Essence magazine… in short, a multi-talented pioneer of arts and activism. I’m seriously mad that I did not know how amazing this guy was until now.

Content Warnings

Some pictures show the aftermath of violence. A few also have nudity. This is what they call mature content.

AIO Postponed a Week

So, I am working on some intense job stuff to prepare for a big upcoming move, and I haven’t got my next Adventures in Odyssey post up to snuff yet. I’ve decided to postpone this post until next week, and then I’ll do another one the week after to get back on schedule. Sorry for the last minute notice, and thanks for your patience!

Elysium, by Jennifer Marie Brissett

Elysium

What It’s About

Two soulmates try to stay together in a tangle of computer simulated realities.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Narratives that show alternate versions of the same people are viscerally fascinating. We all wonder, if our environment were changed, how much of us would stay the same. I’ve tried a number of films and novels that use this concept, always really wanting to like them, but mostly I’ve been too disappointed to even finish them. Half of them are so obsessed with the gimmick of the narrative that they never give you time to get attached to the characters or plots in any reality. The other half seem to be using this as an excuse to write five stories only seventy percent of the way. Who needs to wrap up loose ends when you can just excuse it all by saying you’re being “profound”?

Although it’s entirely likely that I’m just a picky bastard.

In any case, this book absolutely nailed it, even for someone as particular as me. You wonder about the connections between the worlds and where the story is taking you, but you always understand what is happening now. You’re not lost, you’re curious.

We follow Adrianne and Antoine, who are sometimes Adrian and Antoinette or Adrian and Antoine or Adrianne and Antoinette, through a mixture of realistic and surrealistic worlds, all of which throw some kind of obstacle between them. Sometimes they are lovers or spouses, other times siblings or parent and child, but in every world they make you ache to see them together. Some stories are long, some short. Sometimes details change one at a time until world A becomes world B, like a literary version of an Escher painting. Other times we are jerked abruptly from place to place. Each transition feels meaningful, like there was a reason it happened one way or another.

Each individual story is satisfying, though usually in a bittersweet way. You are left with questions, but not painfully dangling threads. The similarities between the stories are clever and intentional. They let you put together theories about the reality underpinning all these fantasies, but like all good mysteries, you aren’t sure how the pieces fit until the very end. The resolution was beautiful; equally satisfying on an intellectual and emotional level.

It’s smart, artistic, moving and deeply absorbing. It’s one of those “finished it in a weekend because I could not put it down” books, and it’s getting added to my personal collection ASAP. I need to read it again.

Content Warnings

It’s intense without being graphically violent. It relies on more existentially terrifying concepts; post apocalyptic worlds, alien internment camps, scary cults, abusive mental hospitals, terminal illnesses etc.

Also, there are a few graphic sex scenes, but they are loving and consensual.

A Group Callout Checklist

1. Did somebody say something shitty? (if yes, proceed to step two. If no, I’m not sure why you’re here)

2. Was this a shitty thing that was absolutely integral to the philosophy of the group? Or somewhere between “kinda related but not everybody buys into it” and “totally unrelated?” (if integral, proceed to Outcome Three. If not, or you aren’t sure, proceed to step three.)

3. Did someone from the person’s own group immediately call them out? (if yes, proceed to Outcome One. If no, proceed to step four)

4. Are you deeply familiar with this group, or have you just read a couple of postings/hung out casually with a few individuals? (if deeply familiar, proceed to step seven. If not, take a stop by step five.)

5. Do more research. Look to find out if this kind of thing is said often in the group, or if this was an aberrant occurrence. This is also where you can clear up any ambiguity about how deeply the shitty thing is tied to the group’s philosophy. Once you have a clearer picture of where this shitty thing fits into the group’s overall culture, you can proceed to step six.

6. Has your research determined that this is a random occurrence, or that this group has a toxic element that has not been addressed? (if the former, proceed to Outcome One. If the latter, proceed to step seven. If you have discovered that this shitty is absolutely an integral part of the group as a whole, proceed to Outcome Three.)

7. Are you part of the group? (if yes, proceed to Outcome Two. If no, proceed to step eight.)

8. Are you one of the people the shitty thing affects? (if yes, proceed to Outcome Two. If no, proceed to Outcome Zero.)

Outcome Zero: Talk to people with personal stakes in the situation, either because they are part of the group, or affected by it. Support them in addressing the thing. Your perspective is not invalid; an informed outside opinion is often very useful in identifying problems. But recognize that it is their thing to fix. Don’t write a callout post unless a lot of the affected people want you to.

Outcome One: this should not be a group callout. An individual in a group was shitty. Sometimes this happens, because groups are people, and enough people are shitty that growing groups will eventually gain shitty people. Call out the shitty individual if that’s something that you really think needs to happen, but move on with your life. You can’t fix everything, and there’s no shame in saving your energy for more important battles.

Outcome Two: talk about the thing. Acknowledge that it is not a thing that everybody does, because then people on your side will be more likely to listen to you. Aim to be constructive for the sake of those people. Remember that it’s sometimes easier to recognize a problem from a distance than when it is right up next to you, and that’s why good people sometimes seem to ignore problems among their own. It is possible to keep those things in mind and still issue a powerful callout. You are not weakening your strike, but adding precision to the blow.

Outcome Three: this is a shitty group. They will probably not care what you say, and will like the attention your callout brings. However, it is also possible that their shittiness will harm others. Carefully weigh the cost of feeding the trolls against the risk of ignoring a wildfire. No one can make the final decision for you. Godspeed

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith

Changing My MInd

What It’s About

Assorted essays, written for various occasions by award winning author Zadie Smith.

Why I Think You’d Like It

There are some books you read because you want to learn a particular lesson, and others you read because they are fun, and some books you read because they feel like a friend. This is a good friend book. Reading it feels like going out for a cup of coffee with the author, and rambling on about literature and movies and politics and places she’s travelled to. In terms of content, I did get a lot out of this book. It convinced me to hurry up and read Middlemarch already, reshaped my understanding of the whole “death of the author” debate, and gave me a new way to frame how I approach writing (I’m, apparently, a macro-planner, rather than a micromanager). But it’s not a book that you go into knowing what you’re going to get out of it. You read it because Zadie Smith is a person worth listening to, even when she herself isn’t sure what she thinks.

The book is titled Changing My Mind with good reason. While she has strong opinions, she is also, like most interesting people, in a constant state of re-evaluating them. Many of these essays are almost short stories of how her thinking has evolved, as new things occur to her, as somebody points something out, or as something unexpected happens. At times she almost comes across as intellectually ostentatious, but then reveals a very English self-deprecation. You like hearing what she thinks, even when you disagree, because you don’t feel frustrated. Instead, you feel that, if you were to stand in front of her and make a counterpoint, she’d listen with interest and keep talking it over with you.

These essays all have a meandering, conversational feeling to them. Sure, they have topics and themes and all that literary stuff, but she can start out quoting Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion and end up talking about Barack Obama as a symbol of our changed expectations for leaders in an era of globalization. But it all hangs together, because those are both people who engage in code-switching; who pick up one style of speaking and then learn another. And that connection is interesting, because of what that says about identity, and how we judge the identities of others, and how willing we are to let people have multiple identities, and when the insistence on multiple identities becomes its own way to condense your own personhood, and…..

I found it all great stuff to think about, and I think you will too.

Content Warnings

She alludes to adult content, from violence to suicide to sex to former child soldiers in Liberia. She avoids being graphic, and often it seemed not that she was being delicate out of some sensitivity, but because she had interesting things to say that didn’t need to plunge you into the visceral experience in order to say them. In other words, you’re probably good.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: When Bad Isn’t So Good

This episode opens with Eugene gifting Rusty, a recurring bad kid, with a sundae. This is part of a rewards program for struggling kids. Rusty got some good grades, which is pretty rare for him, hence, sundae. Sitting nearby is Sam Johnson, recurring mostly-good kid. Sam is jealous. He nearly always gets good grades. He also generally has to pay for his sundaes. This doesn’t seem to add up.

Rusty comments that if Sam wants to get rewarded for being good behavior, he’s got to step up his being-bad game. See, Sam is good so often, it’s not interesting or noteworthy. Nobody wants to encourage him to be better because he’s clearly already got the idea. When Rusty is good, on the other hand, it’s such a rare event that everyone bends over backwards trying to encourage him to keep it up.

Now, here I feel the need to point out that Focus on the Family, the organization that produces AIO, is skeptical of positive behavioral support systems. They prefer to just spank the bad out of kids… God I wish I was being snarky and not just literally reporting on their belief system. When I initially prepared for this review, I intended to talk a lot more about that, but honestly, all that stuff doesn’t come up often on AIO. In the literature they market to parents, yes, absolutely, but this isn’t a review of their parenting literature. So, I’m going to acknowledge all that, but this is not the place to unpack it.

Back to the episode. The show now cuts to our B plot, which has Regis Blackgaard, beleaguered Shakespearean actor, getting cited for a few fire and safety violations at his theater. A few here meaning, quote, “thirty-two odds and ends, plus you need a sprinkler system.” Regis is understandably upset. The Harlequin Theater is already struggling, and these modifications will take both time and money that he barely has. Odyssey isn’t exactly a cultural hotspot, and he has to work hard to convince people to give classic theater a try.

Still, he tries to look on the bright side. He has an upcoming interview with the most popular local radio program. It is a shock radio program run by a guy called Cryin’ Bryan Dern, but Regis is trying not to think about that.

Bryan Dern isn’t exactly into the artistic aspects of the play, and tries to bait Regis into talking about anything more juicy. Regis knows exactly what Dern is doing, but in his current mood, it’s hard to resist a platform to rant about the failed safety inspection. This turns into a long tirade on municipal regulations, permits and bureaucracy as a whole. People call in with their own rants, and Dern is into it. He offers Regis a recurring guest spot complaining about red tape and city workers. This conflicts with Regis’s artistic sensibilities. Dern clarifies that this is a paid position, and that artistic integrity dries right up.

Meanwhile, Sam gives being bad a try. Since Rusty got his ice cream for his grades, what better place to be bad than at school? So Sam intentionally turns in a test without any answers. But as it turns out, the test itself was misprinted, and it won’t count towards anyone’s grade. In fact, based on Sam’s good reputation, the teacher just assumes Sam noticed the error all on his own. On his first try, Sam has already learned something about himself; he has the worst luck at being bad.

Rusty takes pity on the poor little good kid, and decides to give him some bad kid tutoring. He’s basically the anti-Chidi.

After a few weeks on Dern’s program, Regis decides to take on the volunteer fire department. It isn’t that the fire department is bad, but they aren’t professionals, and Regis thinks that reflects poorly on the city. He might genuinely be irritated by this, or he might just be running low on material. Either way, it’s a fairly petty rant. A firefighter calls him up to defend his people. He announces that they’ll be protesting at the theater, and this rattles Regis. Dern talks him down, by pointing out that there’s no publicity like a bit of controversy. So Regis decides to keep doing the program.

The A and B plots dovetail when we learn that Rusty isn’t thrilled about Regis’ program either. His dad is a city worker, so he takes the talk show personally. He decides to take Sam on a bad kid tour. They’re going to hit the Harlequin Theater, but on their way, they swing by Bernard Walton’s place and Rusty tells Sam to shatter a piece of glass. Sam throws a rock, but it just bounces off. He throws the rock again. More bouncing. He starts shouting and pounding on the glass. Bernard shows up and Rusty bails on Sam.

Bernard tries to pull Sam away, and Sam rants that the glass won’t break. Bernard says of course it won’t, it’s unbreakable glass. He’s replacing the windows of the bank. Sam shouts in frustration about how hard it is to be bad, and Bernard is fairly confused.

Sam explains that he thinks that if he doesn’t do bad things, he won’t be given ice cream sundaes for being good. Bernard gives the perfect response; so what? Being good isn’t about being rewarded. The rewards for being good are incidental. The real rewards of being good aren’t anything tangible. Being a good person is an end in it’s own right.

Sam realizes how stupid he’s been, and runs off to stop Rusty. Rusty slips into the Harlequin Theater, in the middle of the firefighter’s protest, with a fistful of cherry bombs. His plan is to freak Regis out in the middle of his rehearsal.

Sam tries to stop him, but Rusty throws the bombs anyway. A curtain in the stage catches fire, and Regis gets a sudden, intense lesson in why the city thinks he should have a sprinkler system. Sam runs outside to alert the firefighters, who, despite their animosity towards Regis, rush in and save the day.

Regis gives his last performance on the Cryin’ Bryan Dern show, which is an apology for all his previous bits. He saves a special shoutout for the brave, hardworking volunteer fire department.

He also thanks Sam Johnson for his quick thinking. Sam talks to Bernard about how he’s glad he did the right thing, reward or not, and while they’re talking Eugene comes up and gives Sam a sundae on the house. Bernard remarks that being good is it’s own reward, but an ice cream sundae every now and then doesn’t hurt either.

I work in special ed, mainly with kids who have behavioral issues. Positive reinforcement is a huge part of my work, and I stand by it as an important element. Good behavior is a skill that takes practice and hard work. Little kids often aren’t cognitively ready to understand all the benefits of being a good, kind person, and more tangible rewards help them along the way. Eventually they become able to understand the more subtle, longterm benefits of being good, and the reinforcements become unnecessary.

Given all that, and what I know about Focus on the Family, the opening scene of this episode made me prepared to eviscerate their misunderstanding of positive reinforcement. But, honestly, I’ve seen kids act exactly like Rusty. They’ll act a little bad, and then, as soon as an adult’s eyes are on them, they turn it around and become pointedly, performatively good. You feel like you have to reinforce them for turning their behavior around, but at the same time, there’s this sense that they have not remotely gotten the point. Worse, I’ve met some adults who still act this way.

Rewards might have their place, but they aren’t the only part of the picture. I remember one kid I worked with who had a behavior reward system. He got red, yellow or green stamps at the end of various activities, and then he went to talk to a behavioral specialist at the end of the day. If he got mostly green stamps, he could pick something from a prize box. But the most important thing the specialist did was ask him how he felt about how he did. Over the weeks, I could see the wheels in his head turning, as he noticed that how well he did changed how he felt about himself. He learned to feel proud of himself when he worked hard and followed the rules. He also felt bad when he didn’t do well, but not in a hopeless, “that’s just the way I am” way. He started to see his behavior as something he could practice and get better at, and that the benefits of that work went far beyond a sticker book or a candy necklace.

Now, this episode doesn’t go into all that, but I think, for a twenty minute comedy, it’s a good introduction to the idea that rewards aren’t the real point of being good.  And I think the sundae at the end was a good acknowledgement that, as adults, we do sometimes have to remember that the kids who are good at being good might still need a little encouragement as well.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Bryan Dern tries to tell the firefighters that they shouldn’t protest, because Regis has the right to speak his opinions. The firefighters come back with, “and so do we,” with this perfect mic drop intonation. It’s beautiful.

Worst Part: Again, not a lot of bad scenes in this one. I think I found the coincidence of the misprinted test a little annoying, but it’s a minor blemish on an otherwise solid, entertaining episode.

Story Rating: The dialog and events had a good rhythm, the jokes were mostly at least smile worthy, the setups all paid off well and the two plot lines tied together neatly without feeling contrived. A+

Moral Rating: Valid criticisms of a flawed approach that leaves room for acknowledgement of it’s place. Ties in well with the story, and is clear but doesn’t over-explain itself. A+